"I Want the Audience to Know What It Was Like Working With Judy," Maurice Hines On His Legend-Packed Tappin' Thru Life

News   "I Want the Audience to Know What It Was Like Working With Judy," Maurice Hines On His Legend-Packed Tappin' Thru Life
 
It's a world of starry names and once-in-a-lifetime collaborations for Maurice Hines. The hoofer extraordinaire gives audiences a glimpse at life as a tap dance kid.

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Maurice Hines Tappin’ Thru Life, which officially starts a 12-week run at New World Stages Jan. 11, is a 90-minute mix of song, dance, and anecdotes — a fast shuffle and strut through a career that rubbed up against some of last century’s showbiz icons.

As a result of such intimate exposure, this high-steppin’ septuagenarian — 72 last month — never ventures far from First Name Lane. These were friends and co-workers, why be formal?

Not that he rules out all surnames: He still recalls, in order, the chorus girls who sang “I’m Just Wild About Harry” to him in 1978’s Eubie! “Janet Powell was the first one, then came Marion Ramsey, and finally Lynnie Godfrey — three lovely ladies,” he beams. “I just saw Janet on the street. She drives a bus now. She’s been driving one for years, and now she’s up in my neighborhood.”

That’d be 145th Street. He lived in Brooklyn for years, then the Village for a while, and now he’s back home. “Life’s a circle. I live five blocks from where my brother and I were raised. I walked there the other day. Every now and then, I do that.”

In a sense, that’s what he’s doing with this revue, although “walk” hardly catches the tempo. “Sprint” is better. There’s a lot of ground to cover and a lot of names to drop. Happy feet — and direction by Jeff Calhoun — keep it a fast-forward entertainment.

Maurice Hines and company
Maurice Hines and company Photo by Monica Simoes

But his journey has not all been silver linings. For one thing, he’s the sole survivor of Hines, Hines & Dad, a trio that toured with Carol (Channing, for the uninitiated). His Tony-winning little brother, Gregory Hines, died in 2003; their father, Maurice Hines, Sr., died in 2006. The brothers put their father in their act as a drummer, though that wasn’t his only calling.

“Dad was a White Rock soda salesman,” Junior notes. “The only one in our family who did shows was our grandmother. She was a Cotton Club showgirl who dated Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, but by the time we were born, she’d found Jesus.”

Maurice was the first of his generation to make the jump into show business. At age five he started studying tap dance with choreographer Henry LeTang. “They wouldn’t take Gregory because they figured, at three, he couldn’t retain the choreography, so I would come home and teach him the steps. Right up to the day he died, Gregory could just look at a step and just do it," he says. "One day he snuck into class, and, when the teacher turned around and saw he was doing what we were doing, she said, ‘Get this kid into class.’” LeTang, likewise, took notice and began choreographing numbers for them, patterned after the legendary Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold.

Maurice Hines
Maurice Hines Photo by Monica Simoes

Their television debuts came at seven and five respectively, doing “Ballin’ the Jack” on a show called "Kids and Company." A CBS executive caught the act and cast them in a bit on "The Jackie Gleason Show," where their talent put Jack Benny’s “Love in Bloom” violin solo to more shame than usual. “That’s how we met Jack and Jackie.”

The brothers made their Broadway bows dancing with French ballerina Zizi Jeanmarie in 1954’s The Girl in Pink Tights choreographed by Agnes de Mille. “It was a number called ‘Up in the Elevated Railway.’ After she sang the song, she comes off — Gregory was shining shoes, and I was selling newspapers — and we did a soft-shoe with her. Originally, there was only one part. I got it, and my mother — who had no idea who Agnes de Mille was — walked onstage and said, ‘Wait a minute, I have another one here. They’re a set, and I don’t break up a set.’ Agnes was smart. She said, ‘Well, if the little one can learn the soft-shoe in 20 minutes, I’ll take ‘em both!’”

They were in a Broadway show before they actually saw one. On a day off, they got an Equity discount and caught Rosalind Russell and Edie Adams in Wonderful Town.

Maurice Hines
Maurice Hines Photo by Monica Simoes

Fiddler on the Roof is the show that inspired Maurice to expand his creative horizons to directing and choreographing — he brought 1986’s Uptown… It’s Hot!  And 2006’s Hot Feet to Broadway. “That, to me, was the most perfect musical I ever saw, and I even got to meet its creator — Mr. Robbins.” Jerome Robbins, that is.

That slipped out. Otherwise, last names fall like leaves in the patter portion of the program. “I want the audience to know what it was like working with Judy — just to be onstage with her and dance with her. She had such a rapport with the audience." Garland, of course.

Then there was a time when, “Sammy wanted us to come over after we closed with Ella and meet a friend of his and see his show. When the door opened, it was Frank Sinatra. I still remember him sauntering in and saying, ‘You guys are working with the First Lady of Song.’” Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald, to be sure.

Maurice Hines
Maurice Hines Photo by Monica Simoes

A brain-burning experience, their upbringing — and there’s more where it came from. “These were great people we met at such an early age, and we learned from them. We’ll never see their like again. We’ll never see that kind of dedication again, either.”

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